Virginia Henderson is often compared to Florence Nightingale for her contributions to
nursing. She has been called the foremost nurse of the 20th century because of her
national and international accomplishments that changed and elevated the practice of
nursing. Her achievements are even more astonishing when the time period in which she
lived is taken into consideration.
Early Life and Education
Virginia Avenel Henderson was born in 1897 in Kansas City, Missouri, the fifth of eight
children. Her father, Daniel Henderson, was an attorney for Native American Indians. The
extended family included many scholars and teachers. In 1901, her family moved back to her
mother's home state of Virginia where Henderson received her early education at her uncle's
community school. Although it was a school for boys, she, her sisters and an aunt also
attended. In 1918, Virginia entered the Army School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., and
received a diploma in nursing in 1921.
Henderson's Nursing Career
Following graduation, Henderson worked at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service in
Washington, D.C., for two years before becoming the first full-time nursing instructor
in Virginia at the Norfolk Protestant Hospital. While there, she was in favor of including
psychiatric nursing into the curriculum and helped develop a course at Eastern State
Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. She also was active in the Graduate Nurses Association
of Virginia and created a plan to form district organizations within the state.
In 1929, she enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University, receiving her bachelor's
degree in 1932 and a master's degree in 1934. During this time, she was a member of the
faculty at Teachers College and remained there for 14 years. Her reputation as a teacher
grew and she attracted students from many different places. She reached even more students
when she updated the 1939 edition of the Textbook of the Principles and Practice of
Nursing by Bertha Harmer. Many schools of nursing used this as part of their curriculum.
She later wrote an updated fifth edition of the same book.
Joining the Yale University School of Nursing in 1953, Henderson became a research
associate for a project to study the status of nursing research in the United States.
Following that, she directed the Nursing Studies Index Project from 1959 to 1971. The
first index of nursing research, the four-volume Nursing Studies Index, was the
result of this study.
Henderson authored several other publications during this time at Yale University. One
important study that was in collaboration with Leo Simonds was Research: A Survey
Never one to slow down, Henderson became research associate emeritus at Yale University
and, at the age of 75, began a new career phase of speaking engagements and international
teaching. This allowed a whole new generation of nurses to benefit from her extraordinary
knowledge and experience.
Miss Virginia Avenel Henderson died on March 19, 1996 at the Connecticut Hospice. She
was 98 years of age. She always preferred to be called Miss rather than Ms. It is reported
that after eating ice cream and chocolate cake, she said goodbye to her family and friends
and left this world very quietly. She is buried in her family's plot in the churchyard of
St. Stephen's Church in Forest, Virginia.
Throughout her lifetime and beyond, Henderson received many awards and honorary degrees
for her contributions to nursing. She was awarded honorary degrees from 13 universities
and was an honorary fellow of the United Kingdom's Royal College of Nursing. In 1979,
the Connecticut Nurses Association awarded her the first Virginia Henderson Award for
outstanding contributions to nursing research. At the age of 87, she received the first
Christianne Reimann Prize from the International Council of Nurses. She was inducted
into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame. In 2000, Henderson was named as one of
51 Pioneer Nurses in her home state of Virginia.
Virginia Henderson's Nursing Legacy
For more than 70 years, Henderson was an active force in the nursing profession. She
not only was a nurse, but an educator, researcher, public speaker and author. However,
perhaps her most important contribution to nursing was as a nursing theorist. Her
Nursing Need Theory defines the role of nursing practice. The theory, developed after
many years of study, research and practical experience, presents a humane and holistic
care plan for patients and defines nursing with dignity and honor.
Because of Virginia Henderson's impact on nursing practice and nursing theory, she
has been called the "First Lady of Nursing" and the "First Truly International Nurse."
She also has been called "The 20th Century Florence Nightingale."
Publications related to Virginia Henderson